Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Mini-Spotlight | CMS 306M Professional Communication Skills

Mini-Spotlight: CMS 306M Professional Communication Skills

Each semester, a team of graduate Assistant Instructors in Communication Studies sets out to teach CMS306M – Professional Communication Skills. The course is required for all Communication Studies majors and all tracks within the major. As a course that carries the Ethics Flag, CMS306M also draws students around campus. During some semesters, depending on undergraduate enrollment, the team can have as many as ten AIs, with each person teaching two sections.

In Spring 2021, the AI team comprised doctoral students Cassidy Doucet, Colton Krawietz, Carly Montagnolo, Dakota Park-Ozee, Kendall Tich, Oshyn Hinton Sky, Rachel Lloyd, Rudy Pett, and Sam James. 

For this Spotlight, doctoral student and course coordinator Rudy Pett fills us in on the particulars of CMS306M and the AI team that makes the class happen. (Pictured, clockwise from left: Tich, Pett, Park-Ozee, Lloyd, Doucet, and Hinton Sky. Not pictured: James, Krawietz, and Montagnolo).

CMS306M AI team

CMS306M AI team On Spring 2021. Clockwise from left: Tich, Pett, Park-Ozee, Lloyd, Doucet, and Hinton Sky.

How does teaching CMS306M fit into the graduate curriculum? 

Teaching CMS306M is not necessarily part of the established CMS graduate academic “curriculum,” but it is one course through which the Department of Communication Studies offers teaching opportunities to graduate students.  However, CMS306M is one of the few courses a) for which the entire instructional team is composed of graduate students and b) in which graduate students operate as the lead instructor within the classroom (as opposed to the “co-teaching” role of a teaching assistant position).  Thus, this course offers graduate students an opportunity to grow, develop, and gain experience as independent, lead instructors.

How does the AI team prepare for the semester? 

Pre-semester preparations traditionally include an intensive, two-day orientation.  The orientation period focuses on a) preparing new instructors for their first semester of CMS306M and b) coordinating standardized course processes, objectives, and policies across the entire instructional team (i.e., both new and returning instructors).  

Coordinating the standardized components of the course remains the primary challenge each semester for the instructional team, especially since CMS306M typically offers 14+ sections each semester. Thus, much of the pre-semester orientation focuses on precisely coordinating how the instructional team will carry out the course policies, assignment procedures, and evaluation methods each semester.

Do you meet during the semester as well? 

The instructional team also meets once during the semester, typically near the “midterm” point.  This midsemester meeting primarily functions as a “checkpoint” for everyone to discuss (and hopefully address) any problems, issues, or concerns that have emerged during the first half of the semester.  The meeting also provides an opportunity for instructors to “re-calibrate” together and coordinate how the remainder of the semester’s assignments will be handled.

Has anything surprised you about the development of CMS306M?

One of the biggest surprises has been how quickly and effectively instructors have adapted to various course changes and developments over the past few years. Some changes included significant revisions to evaluation rubrics, grading practices, and textbook editions.  Other changes involved switching to an entirely online course delivery in less than two weeks when the COVID-19 changes first went into effect.  The assumption was that the course would logically experience some “turbulence” during those periods of change, but the course proceeded smoothly.  In short, the “surprise” has been the consistency of development despite the many unexpected changes and significant course revisions CMS306M has endured.  This consistency, however, can be largely attributed to the many instructors that have maintained such a standard of excellence for this course and in their teaching even amidst these many difficult and/or unexpected developments.

What were the primary adjustments you made to move the course online?

Like many courses, moving CMS306M online forced us to adjust many aspects of the course, including our exam processes, class attendance procedures, and teaching methods.  However, the most significant adjustments involved how we handled student presentation assignments being delivered online via Zoom.  This change to online presentations first required us to modify how we assessed various evaluation items within our rubrics (e.g., eye contact, gestures, body movement).  

We also broadened our expectations for what the typical presentation would look like, specifically with the understanding that not all students would have equal access to the same presentation technology (i.e., presenting while using dual monitors versus a cell phone).  Finally, we designed a new “Zoom x 306M” Canvas module (credit: Kendall Tich) that provided students with an in-depth guide for how to effectively deliver a presentation when using Zoom. Our current textbook edition does not include guidance on presenting in an online context, so the creation of this module provided a key resource for students operating in this new online format.

Is there anything else that current graduate students might find useful for their own teaching practices?

One potentially useful principle that consistently emerges within CMS306M is that collegial colleagues can often be the best resource and form of support for teaching development. Because our instructional team is entirely composed of CMS graduate students, sharing resources, support, advice, and even teaching ideas among each other remains an important process in how instructors often help each other succeed.  In short, the potentially useful idea here would be to seek out collegial colleagues with whom you can mutually share teaching resources, ideas, support, and advice.  Many of those exchanges (e.g., support, advice) can still be beneficial even if you are not teaching the same course.